Coronavirus Threat Hangs Over U.N. General Assembly
Some world leaders traveling to New York are ignoring coronavirus safety protocols.
Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Here’s what’s on tap for today: Coronavirus woes precede the annual summit, the U.N. chief settles on a new envoy for Myanmar, tracking Team Biden’s plans, and diplomats engage in last-ditch efforts to avert climate catastrophe.
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Can UNGA Avoid a Superspreader Event?
The U.N. General Assembly’s annual summit opens on Tuesday, offering world leaders a test of their ability to overcome a year of paralysis at Turtle Bay and a set of global crises that have exposed an alarming level of dysfunction in multilateral institutions, from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change to the Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
The weeklong event, which opens with speeches from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and U.N. General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid, marks the first time the high-level debate has been held inside the U.N. headquarters building since the pandemic began. It also coincides with a third wave of infections in New York City, mostly from the delta variant.
In the run-up to the meeting, as we previously noted, the U.S. State Department and city health authorities have sought to limit the number of foreign delegates traveling to New York and to scale back in-person activities that have the potential to turn the diplomatic jamboree into a superspreader event.
For some world leaders, the response has been to largely ignore it. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who will be the first head of state to address the U.N. gathering, will enter the speaker’s podium unvaccinated, defying a demand by New York health authorities that all foreign delegates entering the chamber show proof of vaccination. Bolsonaro, who tested positive for COVID-19 last year, says he has the antibodies to fight the virus, even though vaccines provide greater protection from reinfection.
The United States is particularly concerned with the possibility of top U.N. leaders hosting several in-person high-level events: So far we’ve tracked events on vaccines, the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, the U.N. Food Systems Summit, and the high-level dialogue on energy—although some of the events may revert to being virtual.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Guterres are still expected to host an in-person summit Monday morning on climate change. The U.N. Security Council also plans to hold two in-person meetings this week: an informal dialogue with the Arab League on Wednesday and a separate meeting the following day that will focus on the security implications of climate change.
It’s worth noting that even top U.S. officials are attending in-person events, despite their warnings last month to other delegations to avoid them. (Scroll down for more details on U.S. officials’ plans.)
So what’s the plan to stop this from becoming a superspreader event? U.S. officials insist they have a plan to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. President Joe Biden’s U.N. envoy, told reporters on Friday that “every single visitor” is required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, and there are plans to park a truck outside the U.N. headquarters building with tests and vaccines available.
“Leaders have to be responsible,” Thomas-Greenfield said, “and ensure their actions do not lead to jeopardizing the health and safety of the people of New York”—or to taking more coronavirus cases back home with them.
Exclusive: Is Afghanistan Safe for U.N. Workers?
In recent weeks, the Taliban have sought to counter reports that they have been hunting down Afghan U.N. employees and have appealed to the international organization to remain in Afghanistan to help address a spiraling humanitarian crisis. The U.N. Security Council and U.N. chief have also signaled plans to beef up the U.N. presence in Afghanistan to avert a catastrophe.
But a group of 12 Democratic lawmakers, including prominent progressives, is pressing Biden to help Afghan U.N. employees flee, citing concerns that they still face threats from the Taliban, according to a congressional letter sent to Biden and first obtained by U.N. Brief. They urged the U.S. president to set an example by issuing visas to some U.N. staffers while pressing other governments to follow suit.
The appeal comes as the United Nations, which evacuated thousands of international staffers from Afghanistan as the Taliban seized control of major cities, has begun laying the groundwork for the expansion of U.N. humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan. Some U.N. officials have privately expressed concern that such action will leave local Afghan staff in the lurch while they face reprisals from the Taliban.
“While we support the United Nations maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to the extent possible, as well as delivering humanitarian assistance, this should not come at the expense of Afghan nationals who signed up to work under vastly different circumstances and now face grave threats to their security,” the letter reads.
It was signed by 12 House Democrats: Reps. Joaquin Castro, Barbara Lee, Sara Jacobs, William R. Keating, Ro Khanna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Karen Bass, Seth Moulton, James P. McGovern, Jan Schakowsky, Rashida Tlaib, and Jim Costa.
More Scoops, Movers and Shakers Edition
Arnault on the way out. A veteran U.N. troubleshooter is planning to step down as the U.N. chief’s special envoy to Afghanistan, a diplomatic source familiar with his plans told U.N. Brief. Guterres tapped Jean Arnault, a seasoned French diplomat, to be his personal envoy for Afghanistan in March, before the Taliban takeover. He is eyeing the exit as a new, potentially disastrous chapter of history for Afghanistan begins.
Arnault previously served as special representative of the secretary-general for Colombia from 2015 to 2018 and as the secretary-general’s personal envoy for Bolivia from 2019 to 2020.
New Myanmar envoy. Guterres has settled on a new U.N. envoy for Myanmar, according to two diplomatic sources.
Noeleen Heyzer, a former U.N. official and social scientist from Singapore, has emerged as a front-runner in the race to replace the outgoing U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who is expected to step down at the end of October. Myanmar’s military junta prevented Schraner Burgener from traveling to the country after its February coup, hamstringing the world body’s role in the country.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has appointed its own special envoy—Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s second foreign affairs minister—to promote political talks between the military government and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar authorities have allowed Yusof to visit Myanmar for talks with the junta, but they have not allowed him to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, according to diplomatic sources.
From 1994 to 2007, Heyzer served as the executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, which promoted women’s rights and economic and political empowerment.
De Mistura on the way back in. Staffan de Mistura is inching closer to being tapped as U.N. envoy for the Western Sahara. The post has been vacant since May 2019, when former German President Horst Köhler stepped down. Guterres settled on de Mistura several months ago, after sifting through a list of some 13 candidates. Western Sahara’s national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, accepted de Mistura.
But his appointment stalled after Morocco, which lays claim to Western Sahara, raised objections. Morocco has recently lifted its hold on the appointment, according to diplomatic sources. De Mistura, a Swedish Italian diplomat, is another seasoned troubleshooter who has led U.N. efforts to address some of the world’s deadliest conflicts, including heading the U.N. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and serving as the U.N. envoy to Syria from 2014 to 2018.
What’s on the Agenda for U.S. Officials?
Low profile. Biden plans to keep a relatively low profile in New York: He is expected to attend events only on Tuesday. His predecessors, including Donald Trump, stayed for the better part of a week (pre-COVID-19). U.S. and U.N. officials tell us that Biden currently has no plans to hold a large number of bilateral meetings on the sideline as is customary, although his full schedule hasn’t been published yet.
What we do know about Biden’s schedule. Biden is scheduled to preside over a hastily organized virtual White House summit on COVID-19 on Wednesday. He is also expected to host the leaders from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—which includes Australia, India, and Japan—in Washington on Friday.
What about other U.S. officials? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has plans to meet with his counterparts from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Germany, France, Egypt, Japan, and South Korea, a U.S. official tells U.N. Brief. He is also expected to attend the U.N. Security Council meeting on climate change.
There could be more meetings in the works as well; Blinken is expected to be at UNGA from Sept. 20 to 23. As is always the case with these big confabs, things could change, and meetings could be added and canceled as the week goes on. Stay tuned for more.
Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s U.N. envoy, co-hosted a virtual event on the gender impacts of security challenges Monday morning with Washington’s BFF of the week, Australia.
Keep an Eye On
The new British foreign secretary. Liz Truss is just days into her job as U.K. foreign secretary after her predecessor, Dominic Raab, was removed from the post following criticism over London’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
But she’s diving into the deep end. One of Truss’s first meetings during UNGA will be with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, where she’ll have the unenviable task of trying to help convince Iran’s new hard-line regime to revive stalled nuclear negotiations before it’s too late and press Abdollahian on a handful of U.K. citizens detained in Iran.
Also, France Is Still Mad
AUKUS fallout continues. Heading into the week, some U.S. officials quietly hoped their latest diplomatic row with France would blow over and that the fallout from the AUKUS deal would be minimal. Events over the weekend made it clear that isn’t going to happen. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spent the weekend hurling barbs at London, Washington, and Canberra.
Le Drian accused the United States and Australia of “duplicity” and said France won’t recall its ambassador from London because the United Kingdom was just a “fifth wheel” in the deal and otherwise not important enough for retaliation. The last thing Biden needed heading into UNGA with his “America is back” message was a dramatic dispute with one of Washington’s closest allies. But that’s exactly what he got.
Call moi, maybe. Biden is reportedly trying to schedule a call with French President Emmanuel Macron to smooth things over after France recalled its ambassador to the United States—apparently for the first time in the countries’ roughly 250-year relationship.
Backlash. After Paris also recalled its ambassador from Canberra, it is reportedly canceling a meeting between the French and British defense ministers. It is also threatening to scuttle a long-planned EU-Australia trade deal.
It’s Getting Hot in Here
Enough about AUKUS. Let’s move on to something more lighthearted, like the destruction of Earth’s natural resources on an overpopulated and rapidly heating planet.
The urgency of slowing the climate crisis was driven home this month by the release of a major U.N. report concluding that the planet is set to warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century—a level that scientists say portends potentially catastrophic consequences for the world.
Some not-so-fun new statistics. Scientists concluded in the new U.N. report that the world must slash carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But at the rate things are going, emissions are slated to rise by 16 percent. Despite concerns about the risk of COVID-19, Johnson and Guterres decided to press ahead with their plans Monday for an in-person high-level meeting on climate change.
Can you guys finally do something about this? The closed-door meeting is aimed at prodding governments to make bolder commitments to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The event will be held on U.N. grounds and draw leaders from the G-20 and countries facing existential climate threats. World leaders who can’t make the event, such as Macron, will participate virtually. Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, is expected to attend.
Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, told reporters last week that it is urgent for leading nations to accelerate policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions and follow U.N. goals to raise $100 billion per year from 2020 to 2025 to cover the costs of programs to help other countries adapt to the environmental ravages of global warming.
“World leaders have a small window of time to deliver on their climate commitments ahead of COP26,” Johnson said over the weekend. “I will be pushing them to take concrete action on coal, climate, cars, and trees.”
But about that price tag. The world’s richest countries need to open their wallets a bit wider. New analysis from Oxfam found that wealthy nations are expected to fall anywhere from $68 billion to $75 billion short in fulfilling their pledges to mobilize $100 billion per year to help less wealthy countries address climate change.
Odds and Ends
Thanks, but I’m busy. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are skipping this year’s high-level U.N. meeting, perhaps to avoid criticism for China’s mass internment of more than 1 million Uyghurs. But the Chinese delegation to the United Nations did send out an invitation for a virtual UNGA side event on Wednesday morning titled “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land,” according to a copy of the invite obtained by U.N. Brief.
Xinjiang is the epicenter of Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on Uyghurs; the United States has labeled the campaign a genocide. No word on whether anyone will actually buy China’s new efforts to smooth over its international image and portray Xinjiang as a peaceful, utopian corner of the country.
Update, Sept. 20, 2021: This article was updated to include an additional member of Congress who signed the Afghanistan letter to Biden.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
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